Saturday, April 12, 2014

Crack-Up (1946)

Crack-Up is a 1946 RKO production that combines the worlds of film noir and fine art, an unusual combination that works surprisingly well.

George Steele (Pat O’Brien) gives lectures on art at the Manhattan Museum. His lectures are very popular but he has a tendency to tread on the toes of the art establishment. He is particularly scathing on the subject of modernist art (something that made me immediately warm to him). It appears that his enemies in the art world (a world far more vicious than the world of hoodlums) are about to get him fired. But before that can happen he finds himself with much more immediate problems.

Steele is arrested after breaking into the museum, apparently in a drunken rage. A medical  examination suggests that he was not drunk but was suffering from some kind of mental derangement. His story of how he came to be in the museum (told in classic noir flashback style) is a strange one. He had caught a train to visit his mother after receiving a telephone call telling him that she had suddenly been taken very ill. The train was wrecked and he remembers nothing else until he found himself in the museum. The problem with his story is that there was no train wreck, and there is no record of a telephone call from his mother.

Lieutenant Cochrane (Wallace Ford) is a no-nonsense cop but he is persuaded that the best thing to do is to drop all charges against Steele. An Englishman named Traybin (Herbert Marshall), who seems to be some kind of high-powered member of the art world, is particularly keen that Steele should be left at liberty. We will later discover Traybin’s reasons for urging that Steele be released.

Steele is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and to prove that he isn’t a dangerous psycho. Pretty soon he finds himself also having to prove that he isn’t a murderer. The murder victim was a man from the museum who had told Steele that he had discovered something very important.

During the war George Steele had played an important role in identifying forgeries among art works looted by the Nazis. Steele is an authority on art forgery and he starts to suspect that the mysterious events that have plunged his life into danger and confusion have something to do with forged Old Masters. There may also be a link to a recent case involving a forged Gainsborough that was destroyed in a shipboard fire. Art forgery is a big-money racket and it soon becomes evident that art racketeers are just as ruthless as any other kind of racketeer.

Steele has several potential allies but at the moment he’s not inclined to trust anybody. Not even his girlfriend Terry (Claire Trevor). Terry has become a bit too friendly with this mysterious Traybin character and Steele definitely doesn’t trust Traybin. He figures that anybody who is as anxious to help him as Traybin is can’t possibly to up to any good. George Steele is starting to develop the kind of paranoia that we expect from a film noir protagonist but sometimes paranoia can be a healthy way of thinking. And George Steele certainly has some real enemies.

The art forgeries are in a sense a McGuffin but they do give this movie a distinctive flavour. The movie has none of the usual film noir trappings - there are no cheap hoodlums, no hardbitten dames, no sleazy night-clubs and gambling joints. This is a world of high-class well-bred dames, expensive restaurants, well-heeled patrons of the arts and good taste. The crooks are more likely to be found in the Social Register than in the mug shots down at Police Headquarters. But cultured crooks can play just as rough as street thugs. And arty society dames can play the femme fatale game as well as any night-club floozies. The movie creates an entirely convincing noir atmosphere without any of the standard noir clich├ęs.

Pat O’Brien is perfectly cast, managing to be a convincing art expert while still having enough of a tough guy persona to be a plausible hero. And he’s a sympathetic hero even when his paranoia threatens to cloud his judgment. Claire Trevor is very good, as always. Herbert Marshall plays the sort of polite Englishman that he usually played but with a slightly harder edge than usual. Wallace Ford plays it very straight as the tough but decent Lieutenant Cochrane. The very fine performances by all the major players contribute considerably towards this movie’s success.

Irving Reis’s career as a director was cut short by his untimely death. He does a fine job here with some subtle but imaginative touches. The train sequences are tense and moody and very effective.

The transfer on the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD is not quite up to the usual very high standard maintained by this series but it’s still more than acceptable.

Crack-Up is a very good film noir that manages to tick all the right boxes without being able to resort to the standard noir tropes. This is an unassuming but very entertaining noir that has been unfairly neglected. Highly recommended.

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